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The Secrets of Russia’s Artillery War in Ukraine

TOS-1 Rocket Artillery
Russian TOS-1 Rocket Artillery. Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

A report published by the UK-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank reveals fascinating new details on Russian artillery tactics gleaned from in-person interviews of Ukrainian soldiers by military analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds.

While the report deserves reading in full here, the article highlights key findings regarding Russia’s artillery-based way of war.

It’s no secret that after Russia’s ambitious early attacks met with disaster in February-March, starting in April Russia pivoted to an artillery-oriented style of attrition warfare in Eastern Ukraine, battering Ukrainian units with overwhelming shelling.

Watling observes: “The generally mediocre performance of Russia’s ground forces has been increasingly offset by their leveraging of massed artillery fires to facilitate a slow and methodical advance. Sustained bombardment has progressively displaced the local population and levelled the settlements and infrastructure that were being defended, forcing the Ukrainian military to abandon territory after it is devastated.

Massive bombardments gradually dislodged Ukrainian troops from the symbolically important cities of Severodonetsk and Lyschansk by the end of June, while making it impossible for Ukrainian forces to concentrate with adequate speed and numbers to effectively counterattack. Even more ominously, Watling estimates Ukrainian personnel losses may now be approaching parity with Russia’s.

The silver lining is that Ukrainian units have repeatedly avoided encirclement and annihilation—part of Moscow’s original objectives in Donbas—through timely and relatively orderly withdrawals, and actually gained ground around Kherson in southern Ukraine.

Russian artillery has an over 3:1 firepower advantage

Russia doesn’t actually have a huge quantitative advantage in combat troops compared to Ukraine (because it’s not fully mobilized)—but it does have much more artillery, and is generating a lot more artillery fires.

According to the report, Russian howitzers are expending 20,000 shells daily on average, compared to 6,000 fired by Ukraine. The ratio for rocket artillery and ballistic missiles launches is even worse. And Ukraine still risks exhausting its supply of Soviet-standard 152-millimeter shells even faster than Russia does.

Russian artillery remains more centralized than expected.

Russia’s military was thought to have decentralized much artillery into its key tactical unit, the tank or infantry battalion tactical group (BTG), thought to integrate a powerful (and theoretically more responsive) complement of 1-3 artillery batteries.

But according to the study, BTGs in practice often have only a modest number of mortars and older howitzers. Instead, brigade- and divisional command echelons jealously retain control of more modern artillery assets in centralized ‘artillery tactical groups.’

Furthermore, artillery in BTGs has been saddled with shockingly poor communications architecture, compelling units to verify fire missions via un-encrypted civilian cell phones, resulting in a ponderous ‘kill-chain’.

The result, per the report: “…Russian artillery has largely operated independently from – rather than in close support of—its maneuver elements [ie. tanks and infantry], with supportive fire missions having long delays.”

Russia

Russian Artillery Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian artillery becomes much more effective when linked to drones.

Prior to 2022, Russia’s military was perceived to have developed a Western-style “reconnaissance-fires complex” where forward drone surveillance assets (especially Orlan-10 surveillance drones) could cue in precise and timely strikes, aided by digital fire direction/battle management systems.

This was not in evidence in the war’s early days due to rushed war preparations, but since then it’s clear Russia sometimes can implement this doctrine and deliver deadly precision attacks—it’s just not a widespread capability, due to shortages of adequately trained personnel and hardware, particularly communications systems and drones.

For example, when supported by drones, Russian artillery can adjust fires in real time to hit moving targets. Drone spotters also enable the deployment of small sub-units of just one or two guns to deliver effective strikes, rather than fully batteries of six guns.

But a lack of proficient personnel and hardware (particularly the larger Orlan-30 drone, which has a laser designator) has resulted in Russian units wasting supplies of laser-guided Krasnopol rounds in unguided barrages.

Russia assigns different roles to different types of artillery.

According to Watling, while Russia employs howitzers for attacking discrete point targets, multiple-rocket launcher systems are often used to bar the movement of Ukrainian forces by laying down a curtain of destruction in between them and their desired objective.

Counter-battery attacks targeting Ukrainian artillery, as well as Ukrainian drone operators, are the preserve of Tochka-U ballistic missiles and Russia’s longest-range guns controlled at the divisional level: the 2A65 Msta and 2A36 Giatsint towed-howitzers, their 2S19 and 2S5 self-propelled variants, and the 2S7M Malka 203-millimeter self-propelled howitzer.

2S7 Malka

2S7 Malka. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Here’s how Russian artillery deploys

Ukrainian sources claim Russian artillery units typically deploy roughly one-third of their maximum firing range back from the frontline to insulate against enemy attacks.

Watling writes that “…mortars are largely positioned 1.5 km [1 mile] back from the forward line of own troops, artillery tactical groups subordinated to brigades 8 km [5 miles] back, and artillery tactical groups armed with longer-ranged systems dedicated to deep fires at 10–15 km [6-9 miles] back.”

Howitzer units usually deploy in a 100×300 meter area, with 20-40 meters between guns. Rocket-launcher units instead use a linear formation, with up to 150-meters separating each launcher truck.

The report also describes Russian units deploying ‘dummy’ artillery batteries of mostly damaged/destroyed guns to divert and absorb Ukrainian strikes.

Russia’s counter-battery game is slow—except when aided by drones.

Counter-battery artillery seeks to take out an opponent’s artillery, leveraging radars and acoustic sensors to trace incoming shellfire back to its point of origin. The faster that can be accomplished, the more likely counter-battery fire will catch the attacking battery before it can relocate.

But according to Watling & Reynolds, Russian counter-battery is slow, usually averaging 30 minutes to launch a counter-battery strike. That’s more than enough time for even towed artillery to fire, hitch up to trucks and get the hell out of dodge.

But when networked with a drone spotter, Russian guns can execute accurate counter-battery strikes in just 3-5 minutes. Only Ukraine’s most modern, Western-supplied mobile artillery systems can shoot-and-scoot fast enough to avoid that. As a result, Ukrainian artillery batteries regularly deploy portable air defense missiles—preferably optically-guided Starstreak/Marlet missiles—to shoot down drones.

Watling notes Russia has made surprisingly extensive, even wasteful, use of Tochka-U ballistic missiles for counter-battery strikes, noting an incident when three of these powerful but imprecise weapons were fired at a single Ukrainian M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer—causing only light damage.

Tochka

Tochka missile system. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian artillery doesn’t shoot-and-scoot.

While the report notes Ukrainian units report can “consistently evade” Russian counter-battery fire (at least when drones aren’t around), Russian artillery crews mostly didn’t move after firing—displacing only after having come under attack, ie. ‘take fire and then scoot.”

Ukrainian sources also claim Russian howitzers crews, when coming under shellfire, typically abandon their guns to seek cover—even when vehicle-mounted.

Ammunition supply is Russia’s Achille’s heel

Russia’s employment of artillery may lack finesse by Western standards, but it still has had a dominant role in facilitating the capture of key objectives and inflicted unsupportable casualties. How to tackle such a broadly destructive, if clumsy, behemoth?

Watling argues the key is to starve the beast, ie. “…the logistics burden posed by the transportation and stockpiling of the vast quantity of shells that allows Russia to continue to maneuver by fire.”

That’s because Moscow’s ground forces are infamously dependent on rail logistics to supply forces compared to Western armies, lacking adequate trucks and modern palletized load-lifting equipment.

Watling writes: “…ammunitions dumps at the divisional and brigade level are large, distinct, hard to conceal or defend, and slow to relocate…given the disparity in guns and the shortage of Russian precision fires, the fastest way to level the playing field is to enable Ukraine to strike Russian artillery logistics.”

While the report argues Ukraine has failed to systematically exploit this weakness, this arguably has changed, given a stunning succession of precision attacks on Russian ammunition depots deep behind the frontline in July.

These are made possible by Ukraine’s use of Western-supplied HIMARS and M270 rocket artillery systems, which can precisely attack targets nearly 50 miles away using GPS-guided rockets.

Such strikes could hamstring Russia’s artillery war, but only so long as Ukraine receives enough HIMARS/M270s and long-range Western howitzers quickly enough, and if NATO states adequately increase production of 155-millimeter shells so as to sustain deliveries to Ukraine. He also advocates the West streamlining the number of artillery types delivered to Ukraine to simplify the resulting “logistical nightmare” for Ukraine’s military, but that seems unlikely to happen given the distributed nature of Western aid to Ukraine.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC NewsForbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Jim

    July 10, 2022 at 1:48 pm

    It’s very simple:

    It’s the Cover Fire Doctrine.

    Have artillery that out ranges the opponent (the Russians do); force the opponent to “keep their heads down,” bring in higher numbers of shorter range artillery “under cover of fire” to continue the barrage (which keeps forcing the opponent to “keep their heads down”) move in shorter range, but more devastating (the “flame thrower” multiple missile thermobaric, concussion weapon) systems, finally bringing in tanks and armored fighting vehicles (if even that) after the opponent is shell-shocked (those that are still alive) and disoriented and already running for their lives, finishing with mop-up of any hold outs.

    The Cover Fire Doctrine limits Russian casualties and loss of equipment because they are never exposed to coordinated and sustained direct fire by the Ukrainians.

    In essence, Ukrainian soldiers never get to use the advanced weapons they are supplied.

    (Upon observation of the Ukrainian “bastions” after defeat, there are piles of stingers, javelins, and other stand-off weapons unused.)

    In essence, the Russians never expose their soldiers and equipment to direct fire until the Ukrainian position has been shattered or as somebody characterized, “rototilled.” Then Russians mop up the leftovers.

    If this dynamic does not change Ukraine can not win.

    It will be demilitarized and eventually the ideology of hate promoted by Ukrainian leaders will be snuffed out and gone.

    • Doyle

      July 11, 2022 at 7:31 am

      Live the dream Ivan….

      • Jim

        July 11, 2022 at 10:42 am

        It’s an analysis, sorry you don’t like it, but we need serious Realism, not cheerleaders’ wishful thinking.

        There’s too much at stake.

        • Walkergw

          July 12, 2022 at 7:17 am

          Ukraine is bringing its number of trained soldiers up significantly. Increased numbers of superior artillery is denting Russian ammunition that will paralyze Russian forces. They are starting to really push Russians out of Kherson. This is all great news. The more dead Russians the better. But it is starting to worry me on a new front. Putin can’t lose. Loss means his death. Russians are pretty stupid that way. This means that Russian use of Nukes in Ukraine increase dramatically. This is a huge danger to everyone, including the imbecilic Russians. The west (Biden and other European leaders) needs to in no uncertain terms make clear that opening this pandora box means that Russia is crossing a line that can’t be undone and will inevitably lead to WWIII. Nuclear war in Europe is not acceptable. Russia can bluster all they want, but any use of nukes is automatically suicide.

      • Thomas

        July 11, 2022 at 7:00 pm

        Doyle, for God’s sake, he is actually right, that’s exactly what Russians are actually doing, given the footage of their side from a last few months.

    • abraham lincoln

      July 11, 2022 at 9:56 am

      Well, it’s good to hear from another psycho Russian. But you forgot one thing in your sanitized version of what Russia is doing – you forgot to tell us the part about sending in mass formations of lightly armed and ill equipped members of the Donetsk and Luhansk militias – who get slaughtered. You see, the initial Russian artillery drives the Ukrainians into their trenches and bunkers. But they are still there, and it will take a infantry force to move them. But the Ukrainians are still there, are still armed and will devastate any attacking force. So when the artillery barrage stops, the Russians send in the Donetsk and Luhansk militia forces as cannon fodder. They get wiped out. This is why the Russians don’t really equip them with any decent weapons to start with. Because their only task is to get wiped out, and thereby cause the Ukrainians to use up their ammunition. When their ammunition is exhausted from killing the militias, only then are the Russians sent in to overrun the Ukrainian positions.

      It takes a lot of nerve for a Russian troll who approves of the mass killing of civilians to accuse the Ukrainians of anything, but of course, since you are the real Nazis, you do that sort of thing..

      • Jim

        July 11, 2022 at 11:14 am

        I appreciate your concern for cannon fodder.

        I wish the Ukrainian government showed such concern for their own soldiers.

        I understand Ukrainian leaders want to fight to the last man… but is that the best result for the average citizen of Ukraine… of which I suspect a silent majority want Peace.

        From what I hear, openly “wanting Peace” can get you thrown in jail by the Ukrainian authorities.

        • Rogue Maulrat

          July 11, 2022 at 6:17 pm

          “is that the best result for the average citizen of Ukraine”

          “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

          ― Euripides

          • Jim

            July 11, 2022 at 7:38 pm

            That’s a false choice. I regret your motto seems to be victory or death… a lot of suffering will happen because of that attitude.

            I, as an observer, don’t want to inflict death & destruction on either Ukraine or Russia, rather I hope men of good will seek to find Peace.

      • from Russia with love

        July 12, 2022 at 6:49 am

        I have never seen such enchanting nonsense 🙂 but I can guess where it came from;) Ukrainian propagandists regularly declare their problems as problems of the RF Armed Forces. what you described is the real situation in which the Ukrainian territorial defense fell. they were promised that they would serve where they live, but due to heavy losses at the front they were thrown to the front line with machine guns against tanks and artillery. the result is obvious. I can prove my theses with a lot of video messages recorded by these units for my command. How can you confirm the Ukrainian lies about the LDNR militia?
        “A Russian troll who approves of massacres of civilians”? stop stop stop! this is ukraine deliberately killing civilians, this is ukraine openly calling for massacres, this is ukraine shelling the lnr and dnr for 8 years, killing thousands of civilians, this is ukraine is currently shelling Donetsk, which has no troops and is killing civilians every day, uh, Ukrainian terrorists killed a 10-year-old girl in Donetsk last week, this is the Ukrainian slogan “Ukraine will be Ukrainian or deserted.”
        come to the mirror, look into it and you will see that bastard who supports the massacres of the civilian population and the financing and arming of terrorists.

    • RyanKC

      July 11, 2022 at 12:43 pm

      If your assumptions concerning Russian tactics and success were true they’d be winning. But they are not.

      Additionally, to characterize Ukrainian leaders as promoting hate while ignoring Russian leader’s hate is dishonest and laughable.

  2. abraham lincoln

    July 10, 2022 at 2:55 pm

    1) Ukraine needs excellent anti drone weapons. I imagine the US is upgrading and improving existing anti drone weapons even as we speak. By winter, Ukraine may have excellent anti drone weapons that might negate a large portion of Russia’s artillery precision.
    2) Ukraine has a large need to train massive amounts of new soldiers. Some Europeans are helping, but it does not appear they can provide the numbers needed. It will take Ukraine a year to develop an adequate training capacity. Then reinforcements will begin to flow.
    3) The US appears to have held back some HIMARS until Ukraine has shown they can deploy them effectively. Yesterday, the Ukrainian defense minister said “We have passed the test” and so more HIMARS should be flowing soon.

    • Exnavynuke

      July 11, 2022 at 4:03 am

      I think your analysis is fundamentally accurate; which then begs the question: “Does Ukraine have a year?”

      She’s trading ground and blood for time. The country doesn’t have an infinite amount of either, and regaining the lost ground will cost yet more blood from a rapidly dwindling supply. Also, her very survival is dependent upon the largesse of other nations; which is also not infinite and all of whom also have looming domestic problems that are screaming for attention.

      I’m not trying to imply successful prosecution of this war isn’t possible, but the current calculus is unlikely. The warring Greek city-states did manage to band together long enough to fight of Xerses, so the potential for victory despite overwhelming strategic odds does exist. If the blue and gold does win out, it’ll absolutely be a war that’ll be studied for centuries.

      • from Russia with love

        July 12, 2022 at 7:23 am

        “If the blue-golds win, it will definitely be a war that will be studied for centuries.”
        Ukraine does not have a single chance, but this operation will indeed be studied in military schools.
        this is a unique operation in which 1 million Ukrainian army (according to the official statements of the Ukrainian administration) is losing the war to a little over 100,000 Russian contingents and about 50,000 militias of the republics. the attacking forces are almost 10 times smaller than the defenders and still succeed. it’s phenomenal!

  3. Tokyo Woes

    July 10, 2022 at 3:02 pm

    RUSI report read in its entirety is useful and very informative. THNX

  4. Al

    July 10, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    do you realize that you giving russians hints by this article?

    • Thomas

      July 11, 2022 at 7:05 pm

      Russians aren’t stupid. They have their own assessment based on precise, unbiased information from the field, which is not publicly available. Just as ebery other military – Ukrainian, US, NATO, etc.

  5. Brent

    July 10, 2022 at 9:52 pm

    I hope NATO is looking at using the Russian Army being all screwed up as a reason to make a dash across the Fluda Gap. Might as well acquire a little territory from a country that can’t hold on to it.

    • Paul

      July 11, 2022 at 1:50 pm

      Brent, Fulda Gap is in Germany. Was the main attack route from East Germany into West Germany. I served there in the 1970’s during the Cold War.

    • RepublicansLovePutin&hateAmerica

      July 12, 2022 at 3:12 am

      The Germans would devastate those scrawny little boys and fat officers like cannon fodder.

  6. JR

    July 11, 2022 at 11:15 am

    Putin and Russia has declared war on the western world many times over. Their constant threats of nuclear holocaust are beyond outrageous. It’s time for the western powers to listen and accept WWIII. And to react accordingly.

    That means sending a massive coalition of troops and weapons to Ukraine to remove all Russians and Russians influence from the lawful borders of Ukraine and anywhere else Russia decides to take for it’s own.

    Whatever. It. Takes.

    Pitty-pat play war will only prolong the inevitable.

  7. Stefan Stackhouse

    July 11, 2022 at 11:26 am

    Well, the Russians are not ten feet tall – but I don’t see the Ukrainians rolling the Russians back to the border anytime soon (absent a sudden Russian collapse).

  8. Paul

    July 11, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    You sure there are M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers in the Ukrainian Army??

    • Rogue Maulrat

      July 11, 2022 at 6:21 pm

      News reports were that they got some in May.

  9. Sam Smith

    July 11, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    “We need the West to impose a no-fly zone over significant parts of Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a statement. White House said that it is “not something the president wants to do,” Smells like the politicians who lost Vietnam with imposed restrictions and Afghanistan, WAIT! That was Biden..
    Biden was one of the politicians who lost Vietnam with bad decisions and false limitations. Then we saw his stupidity in Afghanistan.
    Why does Putin get to call all the shots and threaten anything the west does will start a World War? Biden needs to grow a pair as the leader of the free world and start doing what is right.. appeasement is appeasement. Send the Polish jets, tanks, Kamikaze drones, CIA Special Ops teams and train their troops, use contract fighters Academi -Blackwater Security, CACI International Inc., Triple Canopy Inc., at a minimum.

  10. JR

    July 11, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    “Russia Scared: US Sends 200 Armored Personnel M109 Paladin Tanks To Ukraine”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU8CBxh-X8g

    May 22 2022

    But, this wasn’t my issue, just trying to answer the question.

    • Rogue Maulrat

      July 11, 2022 at 6:10 pm

      WTH is a Armored Personnel Paladin?

  11. Zbig

    July 11, 2022 at 3:20 pm

    The US was late in handing over the Himmars to Ukraine. It should have done so when the fighting in Severodonetsk was still going on. The US should consider transferring the GLSDB missiles to Himars, and above all the missiles with cluster warheads that are in use by the Russians.

    And before the counterattack, the US should send missiles with the CHAMPS warhead – a great place to test them against a possible conflict with China, which has missiles similar to Russia.

  12. Brian Foley

    July 11, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    Interesting article, written from the perspective of “a guy telling another guy what he think another guy is trying to accomplish”. Got it, Thanks. The Russians suffer from “Their reach exceeding their grasp” syndrome at this point. They are “re-evaluating” and changing tactics. This very likely is going to boil down a grinding war of attrition. The numbers favor the Russians where time favors the Ukrainians. This war will be studied under a microscope for years to come (unless something more interesting presents itself…hint…China attacking Taiwan). Picking a winner is tough right now, but if I was forced to put money down…I’d bet the Ukrainians eventually hold the Russians off.

  13. Rogue Maulrat

    July 11, 2022 at 6:11 pm

    Image caption (2S7 Malka. Image Credit: Creative Commons.) says 2S7, but that’s a 2S5.

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